Two Cultures Again

The Digital Storytelling Conference was quite an eye-opener for me. These are artists who seek to use the computer as a new medium for storytelling. I went to the conference eager to experience the insights of people who place their highest priority on art rather than technology. The rude shock I got was the realization that these people are, in their own way, just as narrow-minded as the techies who dominate the computer games community.

Harken back to C.P.Snow's concept of "the two cultures". He pointed out some forty years ago that Western intellectual culture had bifurcated into two mutually antagonistic subcultures: an arts/humanities subculture and a science/engineering subculture. Much hand-wringing was expended over the fear that this trend might worsen. After all, technology without soul is antisocial, and art without technology is feckless. Yet, forty years later, we still fight the two cultures war. The world of computer games is soulless and antisocial, exactly as C.P. Snow would have predicted. I am sad to report my observation that the artists engaged in digital storytelling have reduced themselves to complete fecklessness because of their refusal to confront the technology of the computer on its own terms. They insist on treating the computer as nothing more than a souped-up version of the technologies with which they are already familiar. To these people, the computer's attraction comes from the ease with which they can now assemble exactly the same kind of art that they've been assembling for decades. The possibility that something entirely new might be in the offing does not seem to loom large in their thinking.

Particularly distressing was the attitude toward interactivity. I don't want to single out any individual for incriminating quotes or horror stories; after all, if the problem were limited to one person, we could ignore him and move on. No, the problem ran through the entire assembly of some 80 artists. Except for a handful of exceptional cases, interactivity appeared to be completely unappreciated. These people thought that Director -- or even better versions of the same kind of software -- are all they will ever need to do their work. To them, the computer is an audiovisual device, a digital VCR/slide projector/tape recorder -- nothing more. It was heartbreaking, after all these years of preaching the Gospel of Interactivity, to feel that I was right back at Square One.

Another disturbing observation was my sense that, once I was identified as "one of them techies", a distance opened up between myself and the other attendees. This is hard to pinpoint; after all, I'm certainly the world's worst socializer, and so I may have seen only my own social incompetence reflected back at me, but I had the definite feeling that there was some sort of tribalism going on and I was not one of the tribe.

It should come as no surprise, then, that my lecture bombed. I'm not used to that experience -- my lectures are normally big successes. But my lecture went right past that audience without making a dent. I quickly realized that I was in trouble, but nothing I could do seemed to make a difference. You know you're in big trouble when the punch lines of your jokes evince puzzled attempts at comprehension of expected arcane points. Hell, I had better luck with an audience in Tokyo that barely understood English. At least we were talking approximately the same language.

I spent some time quizzing attendees about about the reasons for my failure and two points became evident. First, as one person succinctly put it, I was selling those people a solution to a problem they did not know to exist. Second, my discourse was too theoretical for a group of beginners -- a simple demonstration with lots of examples would have accomplished more.

A strong conclusion emerges from my experience in Crested Butte. It is absolutely imperative that we overcome the two cultures biases if we are to realize the potential of this medium. I have given up hope that the techies will make any effort to bridge the gap from their side. After all, they have far too many distractions and rewards for going in other directions; why should they bother with art?

The responsibility therefore falls to the artists. They MUST embrace the technology, roll up their sleeves, and get their hands dirty with program code, before they will fully appreciate the medium. They're not ready to do that yet. I believe that their reluctance reflects fear, not disdain. After all, computers are quite a complex medium, and the techies don't make it any easier. But art is not advanced by cowards who cling to the familiar. We need sturdy souls who are not afraid to get marble dust on their hands, mix their own paints, or stretch their own bowstrings. I have no doubt that such pioneers will step forward. In the meantime, though, the business-as-usual artists will continue to get underfoot. I wish they'd just stick to their safe havens.

So I make a plea: we must not tolerate two cultures antagonism. We must promulgate a cherishing of the bridge-building task between the two cultures. We must applaud those hardy souls who dangle in the chasm between the two cultures, drawing thin strands of commonality between the two sides. We must disdain those pig-headed fools who dig their heels into their side of the chasm and snarl epithets at the opposite side. The magic of this medium is not to be found on either side of the chasm; it lives and breathes somewhere in the airy space between them, the void now populated by a nimble few who clamber like monkeys on the thin skein of ropes that now constitute the only bridge between the two cultures. This is the territory we must explore and colonize. Don't look down -- it's a long way down to the bottom.